Friday, December 29, 2006

Tears for Teardowns

One of the saddest architectural consequences that came out of the housing boom was the rising trend of teardowns. When big money could be made in razing old historic homes in order to build massive, multi-dollar ‘McMansions’, thousands of America’s most beautiful homes faced the bulldozer. With the burst of the housing bubble, however, architectural preservationists have found an unlikely ally in the fight to sustain historic buildings: the economy. Evan Thoreau Heigert reports from Chicago, one of the hardest hit areas in the country.


“The neighborhood of Roscoe Village, on the Northside of Chicago, is renown for its quiet streets, old oak trees, and turn of the century architecture. However, in the past few years a disturbing trend has developed. Between the classic Chicago bungalows and prairie-style walk-ups, ultra-modern four or five story condos have sprung up like glass and steel weeds.

I also call this neighborhood home. In the past four months, I’ve watched as an eighty-year home across the street was demolished and the subsequent five story concrete skeleton of a condo unit has begun to take its place. On either side, 1920’s era brick houses look on nervously, wondering when their time will come.

But the trend is hardly limited to this small Northside neighborhood. Chicago ranks alongside San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Washington D.C. as the most active areas for teardowns and subsequent re-development.

A recent story was published about the western Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. This quiet, affluent community has been rocked by the onslaught of teardowns in recent years, when nearly 30 percent of the city’s 4,700 homes were razed to accommodate larger, more modern structures. Other cities start sweating when the teardown rate reaches 10%.

The reason for the rise in teardowns is clear. Chicago is full of wealthy professionals who face huge pricetags when trying to purchase land in the sprawling suburbs. By tearing down what they consider to be older, outdated structures and building larger, more luxurious homes, they can increase the profitability of their investment, with apparent disregard for the historic value of the existing home.

Preservationists see it a different way, particularly in the City of Broad Shoulders, which gave rise to the modern skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, the prairie style, and American Bauhaus designs. These lovers of architecture see the inherent (and no doubt financial) benefit of restoring and preserving old historic structures and the preservationist movement here has taken an epic stance. Take for example an 82-year-old redstone cottage that faced demolition in Hinsdale last month. The preservationist society and the village managed to purchase the structure itself and move it two miles away to land donated by the park service. In Kenilworth, IL on Chicago’s elite North Shore (which consistently ranks as one of America’s top five richest towns), a home designed by legendary architect Daniel Burnham nearly met its maker last year before a local aficionado purchased it for $2 million.

But there is good news. The recent burst of the housing market has given preservationists hope. Nationwide the rate of teardowns has decreased by 20% in the past year. Homeowners are beginning to feel the burden of expensive construction contracts and doubt over the ability to cash in on their investments. This is leading many to see the historic value of their home as a benefit rather than a hindrance. By carefully renovating these century-old structures, many homeowners can create a beautiful home and investment that will pay off financially and morally in the long run.

And in a city like Chicago, where the wind blows cold and the heart’s of developers can be even colder, that is a very good thing.”



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Happy New Years everyone!



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